Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)
The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality (contd.)
4- The Early Monastic Element (contd.)
Monastic Fathers and Joy of the Inner Life:
There has been a common wrong view about the Monastic Fathers, seeing them as mere ascetics or penitents, as if they committed grave sins when they lived in the world and had come to monastic life to practice a severe form of repentance from their horrible sins. This view sees that they were deprived of the intimate joys of inner mystical life. Actually, the stories and writings about them testify that their daily life was accompanied with visions and contacts with the heavenly world, the world of the supreme divine glory and the angels of light. The secrets of the Desert were a foretaste of angelic beatitude. St. John Climacus speaks of the flames of love (in his book on the ladder of spiritual life) in terms which call to mind the poems of St. John of the Cross (a western mystic). John Cassian describes the “fiery prayer” (ignita oratio) in his description of the stages of monastic life.
The Desert Fathers and Brotherly Love:
Yet another common mistake is to think that the solitaries were not interested at all in other people. This was concluded because of their life of isolation and solitude. But, we hear St. Anthony stressing always in his messages and teachings on the importance of love of the brothers. Evagrius of Pontus says: “Better is a layman who serves his neighbor than an anchorite who has no compassion for his brother.” Even as Isaiah Al Eskiti (one of the monks of the wilderness of Shiheet in the 5th century) said: “without love, all virtues are merely elusions.”
The Desert and Tradition of Spiritual Guides:
The idea of spiritual guide (director of conscience, father or spiritual elder, pater pneumatikos of the Greeks, starets of the Slavs) started and developed in the desert. The spiritual guide is the one that helps the monk to distinguish the thoughts that are stirred inside him, and learn from him discernment. Therefore the spiritual guide becomes the director of conscience. The theme of spiritual guidance and discipleship spread from the Desert to all congregations of believers in the world. No doubt it is important to properly choose the kind of guidance that suits the kind of disciples (monk vs. layperson) and the kind of life lived in the spiritual way. This requires the divine gift of discernment and insight on the part of the guide. Spiritual guidance, as developed in the Desert, is a true spiritual love between the guide and the disciple. The guide does not impose his will or teaching over his disciple, but encourages him to discover the spiritual truth on his own, while supporting him by his prayers.
The ongoing first monastic life:
The ideal of the early monasticism has remained in force within the Orthodox Church till the present time. The Orthodox Christian can hardly conceive of salvation without a certain severance from the world to some degree, at least internally. He also realizes the need to deny himself completely so that he can follow Christ sincerely.
The Orthodox Christian finds it hard to understand spiritual life in other forms than the life of Mary who chose “the better part” which shall not be taken away from her, by sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to His words. He believes that his duty initially begins with obtaining the kingdom of God within himself, and the best way to reach this goal is to stand before the Lord face to face in prayer, peace and solitude. Therefore the spiritual life to him means the first monastic life. Examples of the first monastic life that we just mentioned are present till this time in some Orthodox monasticisms. We find some monks living in solitude, although they are few, in places like Egypt, Mount Athos in Greece and maybe in Russia and Romania. Even in the sixteenth century, one could still find stylites (monks living on pillars) in Russia. The Russian saint Seraphim of Sarov, in the nineteenth century, spent many long years on a rock in the forest. In the beginning of the twentieth century there were solitary monks like Anba Abraam bishop of Fayoum (departed in 1914). We’ve also seen in the 1970’s the monk Abdel Messih El Habashi who lived in solitude beside El Baramous monastery, and the monk Abdel Messih El Makary (AKA El-Manahry) whose miracles have been well known in the later years, and others. So, the mantle of Elijah has fallen on many Elishas.
5-The Liturgical element
Orthodox piety is liturgical in many ways. First, the Orthodox Church dispenses not only the Word, but the Sacraments, which infiltrate every element of the life of her children. The Church presents each sacrament through a liturgy that is appropriate to the specific sacrament. There is a liturgy for baptism and unction with oil (Myroon, Chrismation) for the newly baptized, adults or children. There is also the liturgy of the Eucharist, usually known as Holy Mass (El-Koddas). The Holy Liturgy comprises the main Orthodox worship, whether on Sundays or mid week or main feasts.
Second, the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church is extremely elaborate, full of spiritual meaning and beauty. Prayers are lengthy especially during the night liturgies before any feast and during the Holy week (Pascha).
Thirdly, collective forms of worship predominate over “private devotions”. Participating in Holy Liturgy with other members of the Church as previously mentioned, is the main Orthodox worship in all occasions. It is also obvious that the Holy Liturgy worship is a group worship that nourishes individual spiritual life by uniting with the rest of the body of the Church in prayers and praises, and in listening to the sermon given during the liturgy.
Lastly, the church calendar frames the whole year in the stages of The Savior’s earthly life: birth, baptism, Christ’s fasting, His sufferings, hanging on the cross, resurrection and ascension into the heavens, and sending The Holy Spirit to the Church. The prayers and readings from the Holy Bible portray the life of Jesus to the believers during liturgy in every event of the life of Jesus on earth. Thus, it helps make the realization of the presence of Christ in the life of the believers in the feasts of the Lord as well as in the feast of the Day of the Lord: Sunday.
But, besides the general settings and inspiration which the church’s ritual gives to the religious life, there exists, within the Orthodox tradition, a properly “liturgical” line of thought and piety. A whole school of saints and doctors have conceived the entire Christian life according to a liturgical type and rhythm; it is in the Church ritual that they seek and find the successive stages of the normal development of the Christian soul.
(To be contd.)